Whitehaven has been a market town since 1654 and can even boast of a town crier. The market was previously located in the beautiful Market Hall building which opened in 1881 on the site of the old market hall. At 10 a.m. on the 12th of August each year the agent for the Earl of Lonsdale stands near the Market Hall to proclaim Whitehaven’s Lammas Fair. The Fair itself is practically non-existent. But the proclamation is made each year as it has been made for over three centuries, for the charter which granted Whitehaven its Lammas Fair also granted the right to hold a weekly market.
Anno 1654, or about ye time ye inhabitants of Whitehaven Tenants to Sr John Lowther then in Minority procured a Grant of a Market to ye said Inhabitants and their successors. At ye King’s Restoration, Sr John Lowther being doubtful whether ye said Grant was confirmed by ye Act of Judicial Proceedings, and fearing least ye Interest of ye Earl of Northumberland, Owner of ye two next Market-Towns, should not now endeavour to overthrow ye said Grant, as before it was used to oppose ye obtaining ye same; Solicits for a Confirmation thereof, and yet it might receive ye less stop, takes it in ye same terms as ye former to ye inhabitants and their Successors, whereas it ought more properly, and might probably had it been so desired, have been to Sr John Lowther and his heirs as Lords of ye Manor.
Lammas Day (Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas, “loaf-mass”), is a holiday celebrated in some English-speaking countries in the Northern Hemisphere, usually between 1 August and 1 September. It is a festival to mark the annual wheat harvest, and is the first harvest festival of the year. On this day it was customary to bring to church a loaf made from the new crop, which began to be harvested at Lammastide, which falls at the halfway point between the summer Solstice and Autumn September Equinox.
The loaf was blessed, and in Anglo-Saxon England it might be employed afterwards to work magic: a book of Anglo-Saxon charms directed that the lammas bread be broken into four bits, which were to be placed at the four corners of the barn, to protect the garnered grain.
In many parts of England, tenants were bound to present freshly harvested wheat to their landlords on or before the first day of August. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is referred to regularly, it is called “the feast of first fruits”. The blessing of first fruits was performed annually in both the Eastern and Western Churches on the first or the sixth of August (the latter being the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ).
Lammas has coincided with the feast of St. Peter in Chains, commemorating St. Peter’s miraculous deliverance from prison, but in the liturgical reform of 1969, the feast of St. Alphonsus Liguori was transferred to this day, the day of St. Alphonsus’ death.
In medieval times the feast was sometimes known in England and Scotland as the “Gule of August”, but the meaning of “gule” is unclear. It is suggested that it is merely an Anglicisation of Gŵyl Awst, the Welsh name of the “feast of August”. OED and most etymological dictionaries give it a more circuitous origin similar to gullet; from Old French goulet, a diminutive of goule, “throat, neck,” from Latin gula “throat,”.
Several antiquaries beginning with John Brady offered a back-construction to its being originally known as Lamb-mass, under the undocumented supposition that tenants of the Cathedral of York, dedicated to St. Peter ad Vincula, of which this is the feast, would have been required to bring a live lamb to the church, or, with John Skinner, “because Lambs then grew out of season.” This is a folk etymology, of which OED notes that it was “subsequently felt as if from LAMB + MASS”.
For many villeins, the wheat must have run low in the days before Lammas, and the new harvest began a season of plenty, of hard work and company in the fields, reaping in teams. Thus there was a spirit of celebratory play. In the medieval agricultural year, Lammas also marked the end of the hay harvest that had begun after Midsummer. At the end of hay-making a sheep would be loosed in the meadow among the mowers, for him to keep who could catch it.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1.3.19) it is observed of Juliet, “Come Lammas Eve at night shall she [Juliet] be fourteen.” Since Juliet was born Lammas eve, she came before the harvest festival, which is significant since her life ended before she could reap what she had sown and enjoy the bounty of the harvest, in this case full consummation and enjoyment of her love with Romeo.
Another well-known cultural reference is the opening of The Battle of Otterburn: “It fell about the Lammas tide when the muir-men win their hay”.
William Hone speaks in The Every-Day Book (1838) of a later festive Lammas day sport common among Scottish farmers near Edinburgh. He says that they “build towers…leaving a hole for a flag-pole in the centre so that they may raise their colours.” When the flags over the many peat-constructed towers were raised, farmers would go to others’ towers and attempt to “level them to the ground.” A successful attempt would bring great praise. However, people were allowed to defend their towers, and so everyone was provided with a “tooting-horn” to alert nearby country folk of the impending attack and the battle would turn into a “brawl.” According to Hone, more than four people had died at this festival and many more were injured. At the day’s end, races were held, with prizes given to the townspeople.